Thursday, May 6, 2010

FYC replay: Kevin Colden

Here's another look back at a spotlight from my column, For Your Consideration, which ran on the Pulse for nearly a year and a half, though it was sporadic at best those final six months. This piece focuses on Kevin Colden who has been doing comics for over a decade now, and is finally getting some well-deserved recognition.
Chemset comics, where Todt Hill began (I hope to see it concluded someday) is no longer publishing webcomics, but Act-i-vate is a thriving webcomics community and that is where Colden's Fishtown graphic novel was first serialized. Nominated for an Eisner and collected by IDW, this story is a tour-de-force that is chilling and heart-wrenching at the same time. But that's too simple an introduction.
Read on and find out why you should seek out this book.

For Your Consideration: Todt Hill from Neil Kleid & Kevin Colden, and Fishtown by Kevin Colden
By Chris Beckett

Foregoing a prestigious Xeric award in order to serialize his graphic novel Fishtown online at the Act-i-Vate website, Kevin Colden is one of a growing number of artists that are exploring the new frontier of the internet for comics publication. Also the artist of the Chemistry Set’s Todt Hill, Colden is firmly planted within a movement that is expanding the boundaries of the comics medium right before fans’ eyes. Click on in and see what’s happening.

The 411:
Todt Hill
Serialized web comic
Written by Neil Kleid
Art by Kevin Colden

Serialized web comic
Written & Drawn by Kevin Colden

What It Is (with apologies to Dave the Thune):

In the past year, online comic publishing has taken off with a number of new collectives offering free comics to fans on an almost daily basis. Eschewing the traditional superhero genre and clich├ęd storytelling, many of these comics are the ones pushing the boundaries of what is possible within the medium. Unhindered by editorial constraints or focus groups, these creators are stepping away from the mundane and stepping up to the plate in a big way. Two of the more noteworthy collectives that can be found online now are The Chemistry Set and Act-i-Vate, and Philadelphia-born and New York based artist Kevin Colden has his feet firmly planted within both camps.

Over at the Chem Set, Colden is doing the art for Todt Hill. Set in a parallel United States where Richmond Island, better known to its inhabitants as Todt Hill, is now quarantined from the rest of the United States, this is a light drama touched with very human moments. Three centuries ago William Teach – brother to Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard – and his crew plundered unsuspecting victims all across the Atlantic. When the ship’s hold was full, they would return to a secret cave beneath what is now Todt Hill in order to safeguard the booty. But like most pirates of note, Teach was captured and sentenced to hang. With his death, the secret of his horded gold went with him, followed by a legend that somewhere on the island a marker was left that could direct a lucky soul to Teach’s ill-gotten gains.

For years, opportunists and treasure hunters scoured the island, digging anywhere in a vain effort to find William Teach’s gold. It became an accepted part of life until a few years ago when those Teach had plundered – now reanimated zombies – finally made their way to Todt Hill. The fallout from this turn of events was swift and immutable.

The military was called in, but they were unable to move these creatures off the island. So instead, the government decided to quarantine the entire population. Blowing up the bridge that connected the Hill to the mainland, and procuring the ferry for military purposes, the comings and goings in Todt Hill became strictly regulated. Nothing would ever be the same again.

The Tompkins family has come to live on the island, a result of Jacob Tompkins reassignment to security detail on Todt Hill. Jacob tries to make the best of the situation, but his children, particularly the oldest one Michael, find it difficult to adjust. Not only do they need to deal with the typical burdens of being the new kids in town, but they also must deal with the fact that they are stuck on the island. And then there are the zombies, which Michael encounters one evening when he runs out of the house after dark – something highly advised against if one wishes to see the following morning.This web comic, from Colden and Xeric award winner Neil Kleid, is an exciting, original offering that utilizes pirates and zombies as a jumping off point for a tale dealing with many disparate themes. These two creators are able to weave a believable tapestry around a setting that is just slightly off-center, and in their hands it does not come off as silly but draws one into the story, allowing the audience to experience the more human moments in a very “real” manner.

Dealing with family relationships, Kleid threads in narratives to which many people will relate – whether it be the fight one had with their father as a teenager, or the time they were picked on at school, or even that time they came across a zombie strolling the alleys at night – and which keep readers returning with the finely paced development of this tale. Presenting his audience with a number of questions at the outset, Kleid smartly reveals the underpinnings of the story in a calculated, methodical manner, teasing out just enough of Todt Hill’s “history” to satisfy readers, while leaving them curious about other questions that are raised.

Colden’s artwork is well matched with Kleid’s narrative. His storytelling is clear, while his loose linework and coloring of the story convey the slightly whimsical nature of the overall tale, while also managing to ground it in the real world. This is a delicate balancing act, but Colden pulls it off well and adds a lot to the feel of Todt Hill. Kleid and Colden are currently updating chapter 2 of this ongoing epic and readers can catch up quickly with the sidebar links at the Chemistry Set.
Over at the Act-i-Vate site, Colden is writing and drawing his own creation, Fishtown. Based upon a brutal murder that occurred in the “Fishtown” section of Philadelphia, this is used only as a starting point by Colden. His real interest lies not in rehashing this particular case – it would be far too painful for the people involved – but in delving into the psychology of murder and what can drive people – in this case, teenagers – to commit such a violent act. Although many people may look at Fishtown as a re-enactment of sorts, Colden has fictionalized his story to the point where, although the settings he draws are very real, the incidents and actions, with a very few exceptions, are all invented.

Colden’s artwork for Fishtown is stark and chilling. Awash in a midnight blue and dull yellow haze, he does not shy away from exposing the reality of these teenage characters – drugs, disobedience, violence, and sex. Moving the story along at a measured pace, Colden allows the images to convey as much of the story as the dialogue. The teens in Fishtown act and sound like the kids down the block, confident in their wisdom and resentful of authority. They are living their lives in the manner they wish, and nobody can make them do it any differently. Of course, once one chooses to be an adult, then the consequences are no longer insignificant. If only understanding of that facet of life could come sooner to some, then maybe the ugliness that surrounds us all might be a bit more tempered.

The artwork by Colden on both of these comics is a lesson in contrast, despite the fact that the underlying work is obviously from the same pen. Both strips are colored with a blue/yellow palette, but whereas the hues brushed across Todt Hill are brighter, it is the subdued palette on Colden’s solo creation that helps to differentiate the two pieces, adding layers to the more sober narrative. It is an interesting yet subtle dichotomy that showcases Colden’s range as an artist and the thought he puts into the creative process. Many people look at comics and think it is only the text and the images that convey a story. But the coloring of a particular story, when done well, can help to convey just as much as the words and the pictures.

Comics is a medium that continues to evolve, and along with the other offerings from these two online collectives, Todt Hill and Fishtown are two works that are helping to expand the boundaries of the medium in this new century. For entertaining comics – that are free – head on over and check them both out. You will not be disappointed.

An Interview with Kevin Colden:

Chris Beckett: Why comics? What was it that attracted you to this storytelling medium?

Kevin Colden: Comics have always been a part of my life since I can remember. Every single day of my life. Honestly, I didn’t choose the medium, it chose me. I’ve written prose, made music, done stage work and made movies, but comics are the only medium where I can fully articulate what I want to say.

Beckett: With Todt Hill you are drawing from Neil Kleid’s scripts while Fishtown is all you. What are the benefits and drawbacks to each creative process?

Colden: The benefit of working with any writer is that as an artist you have the opportunity to stretch in order to fulfill the writer’s vision as well as your own. You can feed off of their energy and use it to create something that wouldn’t come out of your own head. The only real drawback is that you have to work harder to compensate for whatever weaknesses the writer may have as well as your own weaknesses.

As for working alone – the benefit is that it’s all you. But that can be the drawback, as well. There’s no one to hide behind if you screw up.

Beckett: When I first read Fishtown, I did a “double take” when I realized you were the same artist doing Todt Hill at the Chemistry Set. I can’t pinpoint anything other than the coloring, but the mood of the two pieces is vastly different and that is expressed masterfully through the art. How are you achieving this tonal difference, or are you even conscious of it?

Colden: The mood in Todt Hill comes largely from Neil’s pacing and dialogue. I use that as a guide for what angles to use and actions to show. The cool (as opposed to “warm”, not “lame”) color scheme was intended to give it a dank, nautical feel and hopefully achieves something close to that.

With Fishtown, I’m not working from a full script and my shot choices are done in the layout stage, which I’m sure affects the tone of the story. I’ve paced the action very deliberately, especially in the earlier pages. There’s also a lot less dialogue, and I’m allowing the characters to tell the story through their movement and action.

Beckett: Fishtown is based loosely on an actual murder case. What prompted you to use that as a springboard for your story and – with the facts of the case available – how challenging, if at all, is it to stray from these facts and fictionalize it?

Colden: I’m fascinated by human psychology and man’s capacity for brutality. I’m also fascinated at how the mainstream news media has become over-sensationalized to the point of being offensive. Fishtown developed out of my anger at violent crime and at how even reputable news outlets tend to make those crimes sound like pulp novel fodder.

The only challenge in using a real incident as a springboard is that readers might misinterpret the book as being a factual account, which it isn’t.

Beckett: What other projects are you working on that you would like to tell readers about?

Colden: I’ve got a few projects shaping up for 2008, but right now I’m working feverishly to finish Fishtown by the end of this year. I’m also in two House of Twelve anthologies this year – House of Twelve Presents “The Breakfast Club” and House of Twelve #4. The first one will be out at the TCAF show in August, the second at SPX.

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